Pakistani scholars question PM Khan’s plans to reform madrassas

In this file photo, Islamic religious students take mid-term exams at Jamia Binoria, a seminary in Karachi, on Jan. 26, 2017. (AFP)
Updated 13 October 2018

Pakistani scholars question PM Khan’s plans to reform madrassas

  • Previous governments unsuccessful in mainstreaming seminaries despite detailed plans
  • Move to ensure religious schools are on par with those providing modern education

KARACHI: Upset over the previous governments’ lackadaisical attitude, Pakistan’s religious scholars said that while Prime Minister Imran Khan shows promise in making religious schools a part of the mainstream educational framework, it’s unlikely his plans will be brought to fruition.
Khan has repeatedly called for reforms in the education system to bring the seminaries, also known as madrassas, in line with the modern education system. 
Last week, during a meeting with the delegation of the Ittehad-e-Tanzeemat-e-Madaris-e-Deeniya Pakistan, an alliance of religious schools in the country, Khan had said that uniformity in the basic educational system was imperative to work toward nation building. The delegation was headed by Mufti Muneeb-ur-Rehman and comprised heads of all madrassa boards, while the premier was accompanied by federal ministers of education, religious affairs and a coterie of other officials. 
Yaseen Zafar, head of the Wafaqul Madaris Al Salfia — the board of religious seminaries representing the Salafi school of thought — told Arab News that Khan’s government and past leaders, including former Prime Ministers Nawaz Sharif, Benazir Bhutto “were also sincere in their efforts to mainstream the seminaries,” adding that the madrassas never opposed the plans either.
“It’s the bureaucracy, which hampers the process by raising objections to the key demand of registration of the board,” Zafar said, adding that he feared Khan’s plans would meet a similar fate. 
Aamir Tauseen, former chairman of the Pakistan Madrassa Education Board, agrees that when it comes to meeting the demands of clerics, specifically granting them the status of official education boards, the bureaucracy has always raised various objections, treating religious schools as unequal or as a hotbed for terrorism. “Since they are educated through the modern system, they have a specific mentality and consider the religious schools backward,” he said.
Taking cognizance of the issues discussed, Khan said: “It was unjust to ignore the contributions of madaris (seminaries) and associate them with terrorism.”
Maulana Hanif Jalandhari, chief of Wafaqul Madaris Al-Arabia Pakistan (the board of Arabic religious seminaries of Pakistan), said that in the meeting with the prime minister, it was decided that all measures agreed upon with the previous governments would be implemented.
He added that Khan had formed a committee comprising ministers of education and religious affairs which, “after consultation with the madrassa leadership would draft the recommendations”.
Detailing the limitations of including the seminaries in the mainstream educational framework, Jalandhari said: “To us, the madaris are already mainstreamed as they’re imparting Islamic education in a country, which was carved out of (pre-partition) India for implementation of Islamic teachings. For the government, however, the mainstreaming is that graduates of madrassas should be able to work in other fields of life. For this, the madrassas will have to start teaching English language, science, mathematics and social studies. In return, the government will have to recognize our degrees.” 
One solution to the problem could be if “the basic education in schools and madrassas is the same till grade 10,” he said, adding that: “The religious seminaries should teach modern subjects whereas modern schools should incorporate religious subject in their syllabus.”
Tauseen said the timeline of efforts for mainstreaming madrassas dates backs to the 1970s when an educational commission headed by Air Marshal Noor Khan recommended introducing modern subjects in religious seminaries.
In 1974, after the recommendations failed to see the light of day, all five boards were accredited by the University Grant Commission of Pakistan, which accepted the highest madrasa degree of “Shahadat Aalia” as equal to a Master of Arts (MA), Tauseen said.
“Almost every government formed a commission in this regard but in vain. In 1999, Mahmood Ahmed Ghazi recommended the establishment of a Pakistan Madrassa Education Board, which was setup in 2001. This board was aimed at mainstreaming the madrassas but all five boards rejected the proposal,” he said. 
Tauseen, who took charge of the board in August 2014, said that it remained dysfunctional for 11 years primarily due to the “adverse attitude of the Religious Affairs Ministry”.
Inclusion of the madrassas in the mainstream became a part of the National Action Plan, which was formulated in the aftermath of the December 2014 attack on the Peshawar Army Public School. “Several meetings of different committees, education ministry, National Anti-Terrorism Authority and Interior Ministry were held and I, being head of the Pakistan Madrasa Board, was part of all of them. Several recommendations were prepared; however, with a change of government none were implemented,” he said.
Citing a lack of coordination and understanding as the main reasons for the delay in the implementation of plans, Tauseen suggested that madrassas should first have the complete data on hand, which should be shared with the government, as the first step toward mainstreaming. This could be followed up with the introduction of a uniform syllabus in the second phase.
There are three types of seminaries: Maktabs (schools for day scholars), madrassas (seminaries with boarding and lodging) and darul uloom (seminaries for higher studies). Together, they are responsible for more than 37,000 institutions, with nearly 4 million students acquiring education from them.
Jalandhari said that around 30,000 madrassas are registered with the five boards representing various schools of thought in Islam. Abdul Kabir Qazi, home secretary of the Sindh province, said there are a total of 10,033 madrassas in Sindh out of which 7,724 are operational while 2,309 were shut down after the geo-tagging exercise. “We have registered all the seminaries in Sindh province,” Qazi told Arab News. “All the madrassas in the province have been geo-tagged,” he added.
Wakeel Ahmed Khan, former secretary of religious affairs, refutes the allegations and instead blames the ‘inconsistency of policies’ of the succeeding governments for hampering the development of the madrassas.
“For mainstreaming madrassas, modern disciplines should be taught and religious education should be an additional focus,” the former secretary told Arab News. 
Drawing a comparison with the religious seminaries in the UK, he said: “They are accredited with the UK education boards on their terms and simultaneously to their branches in Pakistan… they have accepted this mainstreaming happily.”

Afghan capital’s air pollution may be even deadlier than war

Updated 13 November 2019

Afghan capital’s air pollution may be even deadlier than war

  • People are dying, not from the war, but the toxic air they breathe in
  • Research group State of Global Air says more than 26,000 deaths could be attributed due to the pollution

KABUL, Afghanistan: Yousuf fled with his family from his home in eastern Afghanistan eight years ago to escape the war, but he couldn’t escape tragedy. In the capital, Kabul, five of his children died, not from violence or bombings, but from air pollution, worsened by bitter cold and poverty.
At the camp for displaced people they live in, they and other families keep warm and cook by burning the garbage that surrounds them. One by one over the years, each of the children got chest infections and other maladies from the pollution and never made it to age seven, he told The Associated Press. The 60-year-old has nine surviving children.

Yusouf, who escaped war in eastern Afghanistan to safeguard his family, speaks during an interview in Kabul, Afghanistan. In the capital, Kabul, five of his children died, not from violence or bombings, but from air pollution, worsened by bitter cold and poverty. (AP/Rahmat Gul)

“We didn’t have enough money for the doctor and medicine ... I can barely feed my children,” said Yousuf, who works as a porter in a vegetable market earning barely a dollar a day. Like many Afghans he uses only one name.
Afghanistan’s pollution may be even deadlier than its war, now 18 years long.
There are no official statistics on how many Afghans die of pollution-related illnesses, but the research group State of Global Air said more than 26,000 deaths could be attributed to it in 2017. In contrast, 3,483 civilians were killed that year in the Afghan war, according to the United Nations.
Kabul, a city of some 6 million, has become one of the most polluted cities in the world — ranking in the top of the list among other polluted capitals such as India’s New Delhi or China’s Beijing. Decades of war have wrecked the city’s infrastructure and caused waves of displaced people.
On most days, a pall of smog and smoke lies over the city. Old vehicles pump toxins into the air, as do electrical generators using poor quality fuel. Coal, garbage, plastic and rubber are burned by poor people at home, as well as at the many brick kilns, public baths and bakeries. Many apartment buildings have no proper sanitation system, and garbage is piled on roadsides and sidewalks.
The large majority of victims are poisoned by the air in their own homes, as families burn whatever they can to keep warm in Kabul’s winters, with frequent sub-zero temperatures and snow. Children and elderly are particularly vulnerable. At least 19,400 of the 2017 deaths were attributable to household pollution, which also contributed to a loss of two years and two months of life expectancy at birth, according to the State of Global Air survey.

Old vehicles are pumping poisonous fumes into the air. (AFP)

Yousuf’s camp, home to more than a hundred families, has no proper water or sanitation system and is surrounded by garbage dumps. His and other families’ children search through the garbage for paper, cloth, sticks or plastic, anything that can be burned for fuel.
“We are so poor, and we have lots of problems, we don’t have enough money for medicine, wood or coal for heating, so this is our life, my children collect garbage from dump yards and we use it for cooking and heating to keep the kids warm,” he added.
Decades of war have worsened the damage to Afghanistan’s environment and have made it a huge challenge to address them. Environmental issues are far down the list of priorities for a government struggling with basic security issues, rampant corruption and a plunging economy.
Three or four decades ago, “it was a wish for people to come to Kabul and breath this air,” said Ezatullah Sediqi, deputy director for the National Environmental Protection Agency. But in the wars since, “we lost all our urban infrastructure for water, electricity, public transportation, green areas, all these things,” he said.
Kabul’s environmental department has launched a new program to control old vehicles, one significant source of pollution.
“Fighting pollution is an important as fighting terrorism,” said Mohammad Kazim Humayoun, the department’s director.
Authorities warn that this winter is expected to be colder than usual and fear that will only increase the use of pollution-creating fuels to keep warm. The Kabul municipality has also called on residents to stop burning garbage for heat and instead use fuel.

The wife of Yousuf who fled from their home in eastern Afghanistan, burns plastic to make tea at a camp for displaced people, in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP /Rahmat Gul)

“If everyone follows the instructions laid out by Kabul Municipality, the pollution could be controlled,” the municipality’s spokeswoman, Nargis Mohmand, said. But if not, “then we might live with this untreatable wound for years to come.”
But fuel is either too expensive or not available for many in Kabul. Electrical heaters are too pricey for most, and power outages are frequent.
Doctors at Kabul’s Indira Gandhi Children’s Hospital say they’ve seen the numbers of patients with pollution-related illnesses increase, though they could not give exact figures. In the winter, hundreds of children a day sometimes come in, suffering from respiratory illnesses, according to hospital officials.
Dr. Saifullah Abassin, a specialist trainer at the hospital, said his ward has a capacity of 10 patients but often has three times that number.
The government has launched an environmental awareness campaign. Ads on TV, programs at schools and universities and sermons at mosques talk about pollution’s harm to society and tell listeners about steps to reduce it.
But there are steps the state needs to take, like encouraging the planting of trees and creating green spaces, as well as implementing a city master plan to stop unplanned development around the capital, often a source of pollution because of their lack of services.
Sediqi, of the NEPA, said that ever since the first post-Taliban government was created in 2001, there was no planning on urban infrastructure, which left individuals to build on their own.
“Unfortunately, that led to unplanned development,” he said. “So now we have numerous urban problems and challenges and organizational challenges, which is causing the environmental pollution.”